Trade war talk continues to take its toll on commodities and the company’s that mine them. This week, a further US$200bn worth of tariffs were slapped on Chinese goods by Donald Trump’s US government, with the Chinese now saying they are no longer interested in dialogue on the matter at all. Markets await nervously for the next round of tit-for-tat exchanges, even as Donald Trump himself opens a new front in international anxiety by undermining NATO.
According to the Trump narrative of course, he isn’t undermining NATO, he’s just arguing that the United States should be treated fairly in financial terms as regards relative contributions from members. But unlike previous US regimes that have raised the issue softly but firmly, Mr Trump has allowed his own rhetoric to make all the running.
Thus, Germany is enslaved to Russia and Russian natural gas, through several multi-billion dollar deals and commitments, and such deals and commitments surely undermine the solidarity and strength of NATO?
He has a point at that. But the real point is a tactical blindsider either by Mr Trump or by someone advising him. By painting the Germans in no uncertain terms as being in thrall to Russia, Mr Trump has deflected any effective criticism the Germans are likely to have directed at him in regard to his own planned cozying up to Russia later in the week.
Mr Trump plans to visit Vladimir Putin in Helsinki within a couple of days, and has joked that what with his visits to Britain, where politics continues in its Brexit-related turmoil, and to NATO, where the Germans are apparently the bad guys, his meeting with Mr Putin might well be the easiest on his itinerary.
His critics have of course seized on this levity as an opportunity to remind the world, if it needs reminding, that the Russia enquiry inside Mr Trump’s own country remains ongoing, and is unlikely to be deflected, whatever new supreme court judges Mr Trump cares to nominate.
But the reality is different. His easiest meetings will probably be in Britain, precisely because nothing is a stake for Mr Trump other than a photo opportunity with the Queen, which will go down a storm in his midwestern heartlands. Everything else is cosmetic. The Brits are already upping their contributions to Afghanistan as requested by the US, and they are so adrift in regard to their own domestic and foreign policies that Mr Trump will be able to get away with voicing a few platitudes and leaving with a sense of a job well done.
With NATO, the intricacies are more tangled. It’s clear though that Mr Trump has approached these meetings with a straightforward strategy. Strip away the biases of the anti-Trump media and what you are left with are straightforward demands for European NATO countries to contribute more to the Western alliance. That’s not new, it’s just the style of delivery that’s changed. And it may well be that the change in the style of delivery could foreshadow a change in the level of contributions that the European do make. So, if Britain is an open goal, the NATO alliance offers the opportunity of a clear win for Mr Trump, if not an altogether immediate one.
With Russia, it’s more complicated. Mr Trump sees himself as a big man in a world run by big men, and with the probable exception of Xi Jinping, they don’t come bigger than Mr Putin. The straight fact that Mr Putin’s Russian economy is smaller than the British, the Canadian, the Indian, the Brazilian, and even the Italian economies, makes little odds here. Mr Putin knows how to exert and deploy power, and that’s something that appeals to Mr Trump.
Mr Trump too has something of an aversion to a free press, although couched in those terms he would probably deny it. But he has come close on more than one occasion to advocating violence against journalists, principally as part of a narrative that decries fake news. The famous freedoms of the US are hard to square with the dark repression that Russia is famous for.
Putin on the other hand is having a marvellous time. His country is in the final stages of hosting what one and all agree has been a spectacularly entertaining World Cup, and in the run up to the final he gets to break bread privately with the US president, who when all’s said and done, and in spite of what the liberal press would like to believe, is still the most powerful man in the world.
Will Mr Trump turn the Russians away from the Chinese? That might be helpful in the context of the coming trade war, but it seems doubtful. What’s more likely is that we’ll see a softening of rhetoric, praise directed by Mr Trump to Russia, while criticism continues to come the way of the Western democracies, and perhaps closer ties when it comes to dealing with the Syrian problem.
None of which bodes particularly well or ill for markets. But then markets have got enough to be putting up with as it is.